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The Gulf Oil Spill: Human Health Is Affected too

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Oil spills destroy ecosystems and kill wildlife, but people's health is directly affected too. As the situation in the Gulf Coast unfolds, the local communities and workers must be protected.

Oil is semi-volatile, which means that it can evaporate into the air and create a heavy vapor that stays near the ground - in the human breathing zone. When winds whip up oily sea water, the spray contains tiny droplets - basically a fume - of oil, which are small enough to be inhaled deep into the lungs. We know that's happening in the Gulf Coast, because people are reporting a heavy oily smell in the air. Already my colleagues in Louisiana are reporting that people in the coastal community of Venice, Louisiana are suffering from nausea, vomiting, headaches, and difficulty breathing. Knowing the health effects of oil, I'm not surprised.

Oil contains petroleum hydrocarbons, which are toxic and irritating to the skin and airways. It also contains volatile chemicals, called VOCs, which can cause acute health effects such as headaches, dizziness and nausea. Over the long term, many of these chemicals have been linked to cancer, so there are lots of reasons to worry about inhaling them.

Some people are at especially high risk:

Pregnant women - VOCs have been associated with miscarriage, so I would advise pregnant women to leave the area near the spill if they can.

People with respiratory disease cannot afford the additional lung damage from these chemicals, and should evacuate the area if possible.

The EPA is doing air monitoring and posting it on their website, and I will be carefully following the levels of contaminants in the air. I'm disappointed not to see hourly air quality updates, since the winds are dying down and shifting, so rapid hourly reporting would help health workers and local residents respond to the changing conditions.

I'm also worried about the clean-up workers. BP has hired local fishermen to help with the clean-up effort. It's great to provide employment and to involve them in the effort to save the Gulf Coast, but I'm worried. The fisherman have not been fully trained on how to work safely with hazardous materials. Worse still, reports from our Gulf Coast partners indicate that they may not be getting adequate protective equipment. The clean up workers need respirators with vapor cartridges (and need to be checked for adequate fit). They need heavy impermeable gloves, and protection on their arms. Remember, these chemicals can damage the skin and even be absorbed through the skin. This clean-up needs to be done quickly, but it also needs to be done safely. Eleven workers are already dead from the explosion; let's make sure worker and community health is protected from now on.

This post originally appeared on NRDC's Switchboard blog.

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